In response to Rabbi Ellen Lippmann’s open letter in these pages to the board of governors of Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion, asking that it reconsider its policy of not ordaining rabbinical students who have non-Jewish spouses or partners, I offer my own open letter to the board:
I am writing to urge you to reconsider the HUC-JIR requirement that all prospective rabbinical students be Jewish.
As a committed Jew who cares deeply about the future of our Jewish communities and Judaism, I’m very concerned that some of the best and brightest leaders available to us are prevented from pursuing what would certainly be brilliant careers leading our congregations and Jewish organizations as rabbis.
For example, there are many Christians who are deeply committed to the Torah and have taken it upon themselves to lead Judaicly meaningful lives, including Jewish holiday observance and Jewish studies. Theirs is a life of great passion, knowledge and deep caring for the Jewish people. There are many Christians who support Jewish causes and only wish they could involve themselves more with temples and synagogues, adding to the wonderful environments we try to create in them.
These Christians are like the many thousands of non-Jews who belong to temples and synagogues across North America. They strongly believe Genesis 12:3, when God said to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you and I will curse him who curses you.”
What better way to allow them to be among those whom God blesses than to give them the opportunity to lead us, as rabbis, to greater levels of Judaic commitment?
The Torah is filled with stories of how non-Jews greatly helped the Jewish people. No less than Pharaoh’s daughter saved our patriarch Moses from almost certain death when he was an infant. Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, suggested the legal hierarchy that made it possible to lead hundreds of thousands of Jews through the desert with greater order and peace among the community, and Noah was chosen by God to save mankind by repopulating the earth after the great flood. Our Torah is remarkable in the way it informs us of the great contributions non-Jews have made to the world — and to the Jews.
Moreover, since rabbis are role models, how better to connect to the non-Jewish members of a congregation than to have a non-Jew leading them? To see a gentile embracing Jewish practices and Jewish knowledge with such energy and commitment should only inspire the many non-Jews who will see the rabbi performing his or her role as both a spiritual leader and a gentile.
As Rabbi Lippmann notes, the rabbi is in fact a human being and therefore the religion of his or her spouse/partner should not matter, especially when, as in her partner’s case, she has taken on many Jewish practices while still feeling Irish Catholic. Why, then, should rabbis not be judged similarly? They should be judged not by whether they are formally a Jew or a gentile, but rather by their Jewish practice. Does Judaism inform his or her life? Are Jewish holidays observed? Is the rabbi Jewishly knowledgeable and capable of effectively teaching and even inspiring others? If the answer to these questions is yes, why would we deprive ourselves of being led by these wonderfully talented individuals? The simple fact that the Judaism-loving, Israel-loving and Jew-loving Christian community in the United States is surely many times that of the Jewish population points to the greatly increased chance we’ll have of finding more of the leaders our communities want and need. And consider furthermore the possibilities we would have of cultivating future rabbis from those of non-Christian faiths and even of no faith.
No, I do not really believe the above. However, I make these points to illustrate where Rabbi Ellen Lippmann’s arguments must logically lead — unless they are challenged and rejected.
The primary purpose of a rabbi is to lead Jews. As important as teaching texts is, any knowledgeable Jew — or non-Jew — can do that. And leading means, first and foremost, trying to set an example of how a Jew should live. In other words, the congregation is supposed to try to emulate its rabbi. In Rabbi Lippmann’s view, rabbis should emulate their congregations. If that becomes the accepted view in Reform Judaism, that will not only end the meaning and purpose of the Reform rabbinate, it will mean the end of Reform Judaism.
Joel Alperson is a past national campaign chair for United Jewish Communities, now known as the Jewish Federations of North America. He lives in Omaha, Neb.